Friday, February 28, 2014

Karmic Clorox

The Mahabharata tells us:
“When there is a stain and nothing will remove it, time will take it away.”

One way to think of these “stains” is some past action or event that informs our current life.  The word in Sanskrit for this is samskara, which comes from the roots sam (joined or together) and kara (action, cause, or doing).  These samskaras give us a sort of karmic inheritance, they are the emotional, physical and mental patterns that we find ourselves in again and again.  And although the Mahabharata says that time will take the stains away, for most of us, these “stains” actually become reinforced over time. It’s like carving a path through the woods – the first time you have to battle through, clear the branches and bramble, stamp down the grass.  But once you’ve done that it’s easier to find your way back to that path, and the more you travel down it, the more defined it becomes until, like one of my students said this week, it becomes a rut.  These patterns don’t necessarily even have to be “negative” - even when a pattern is uplifting and life-enhancing it keeps us, well, in a pattern.  Which usually means that we can’t see outside of it, can’t see that there are other possibilities and so it limits us to the known and the comfortable, which can be a recipe for monotony and lethargy.

I have been working through a fascinating, transformative practice recently with an Executive Coach (for lack of a better term) which he calls “emerging narrative” work.  Basically it’s a look back over my life to see what narratives exist – some are happy, positive, and life-enhancing, others are negative and keep me in patterns of self-limiting thought and behavior.  Unfortunately some of these more negative stories have become dominant and have whacked a veritable canyon through the path of my life.  And yet I can recognize that there are other, parallel stories, ones that have equal proof in supporting evidence, that exist simultaneously, and yet for some reason I have chosen to not make my dominant narrative.  The reason this work is so powerful and so transformative is that it’s not creating anything new.  It’s simply looking at the “stories” that exist, that have supporting evidence in my life, and that actually happened or are still happening right now, and choosing the ones that affirm the person I wish to become. 

Our lives are made up of stories, patterns, narratives, thinking patterns – samskaras.   Some of them, like a stain on an old shirt, have faded with time and no longer hold sway over us.  Some of them are still powerful and guiding presences.  When we accept all of these samskaras as part of who we are, we soften and open to the fullness of our lives.  It enables us to see the gifts and the challenges each of these narratives have offered us and allows us to embrace both the beauty and the messiness of life.  It is hard to let some of these narratives go.  For me, it has felt a little like losing part of my identity.  Even though it’s not an identity I desire anymore, it’s still a part of who I am.  But I am hoping that this clinging is the stain that fades with time, allowing me to embrace and live more fully into my emerging and chosen narrative.

Off the mat:
I'm making a deep and complex process simple here for the sake of a blog entry of reasonable length - I am happy to talk or email with anyone more in depth about this process if you are interested.  Or you can do the work yourself - the Executive Coach I am working with is doing a workshop at Shree, so you can do this amazing process for yourself:
Register soon, there is limited space available.  I promise it will change your life!

In the meantime, just become aware.   What triggers you to react in a way that is out of alignment with the person you wish to be?  What are the beliefs, the story, that underlay those reactions?  Keep a “reaction journal” for the week and see what patterns emerge.  Once you recognize what those patterns are, reflect on how you would rather respond in any of those situations.  What are the beliefs and story that underlie that more positive response? 

On the mat:
This week we worked on moving our thigh bones back into the hip socket.   When we do that, the front of the groins soften and we settle back into a feeling of acceptance for all of our samskaras.  This action also opens up the apana vayu, the downward flow of prana that is associated with letting go and elimination of waste (like those negative narratives that keep us in patterns of self-limiting thoughts and actions).  It also allows the spine and torso to lengthen, making space inside for the emerging narrative to grow and flourish.  

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Golden Mongoose (and why you shouldn't be one)

In the Mahabharata there is a story of a mongoose who witnesses a great act of graciousness and hospitality.  The mongoose was living beneath the home of a family that is starving during a famine.  When an unexpected guest comes, a stranger, the family readily offers him their last bowl of grain without a second thought.  The guest protests and one by one they all insist he have it.  He does, and the food restores him to his full glory as Lord Yama.  As a thank you to the family, he whisks them way to a lifetime of great abundance.  After they leave, the mongoose rolls around in the crumbs left from this final meal and it turns his fur golden in all the places it touches.  The mongoose then spends the rest of his life searching for more blessed crumbs to roll around in to turn the rest of his fur golden. 

I have my own personal mongoose story (probably more than one, but let’s keep it to one for the sake of simplicity!).  Years ago I had an ecstatic meditation experience that left me euphoric, in a state of absolute elation and contentment for days afterwards.  I walked around like I was in a trance, feeling completely full, happy and peaceful.  Even writing about it now I can remember the effusive joy I felt for those couple of days. I then spent the better part of a year trying to re-create that experience in my meditation practice.  What did I eat that morning and the night before?  How exactly was I sitting?  How much time did I do pranayama before beginning meditation?  What time exactly did I start?

Needless to say, I never had the same experience again.  I had days where my meditations were deep, rich and meaningful, and days where it felt like the time on my cushion was a complete waste of time, but it was never the same.  Each day during that time I would get up from practice somewhat disappointed because I wasn’t able to recreate my ecstatic meditation experience again.  And for all that time I missed out on the gifts of the practice that I was actually receiving.  How often do we miss the offering being presented because we are searching for a different one?  One of my teachers likens it to walking down a hallway past an open door, getting to the end and banging on the locked one at the end of the corridor trying in vain to get in.  When we recognize the gifts that are actually being offered, rather than the ones we were hoping for, we open ourselves to a wider experience of life and can appreciate the fullness that the universe has to offer us.  Are there open doors you are walking by in your life?  Are you pounding on a locked one to no avail?

I heard an interview years ago with Father Gregory Boyle, who relayed this beautiful story: “The desert monks, centuries ago, whenever they were greatly distressed or despondent even would repeat a one word over and over again to themselves. And the word wasn’t Jesus, it wasn’t love – the word was “Today”.  I understand that mantra – it keeps you here, it keeps you facing the person who’s facing you.  It keeps you present to God revealed magnificently in front of you.”

Let your mantra this week be “Today”. 

Off the mat practices:
Do this several times throughout your day:  Take 5 deep breaths and let your mind become still for those breaths.  Become aware of what is good, sweet and happy in the moment you find yourself in.  Take 5 more breaths to revel in it. Proceed with the rest of your day.  Repeat.

When you find yourself focusing on some past happy experience and realize you are allowing it to distract you, first be aware that you are doing it.  Give yourself a moment to feel gratitude for that past moment, then do the exercise above!

On the Mat practices:
This week we worked up to Vasisthasana (Sage Vasisthasa’s pose, otherwise known as Side Plank) in our practice.  Throughout the practice we focused on staying grounded through the medial side of the hand (the pointer finger side, especially the base of the pointer finger) to stay grounded in the present moment, and at the same time externally rotating the head of the arm bone (otherwise known as the shoulder) to open our hearts to the blessings the present moment has to offer.

For the Anusara junkies:
Open To Grace:  Be aware of the blessings of everyday, simple moments.
Take a breath and let it bring your awareness to the joy this moment holds for you.

Muscular Energy: Engage your muscles to engage with what’s happening right here, right now.
Draw in the gifts that this pose has to offer you today.

Inner Spiral: Widen your sit bones and expand your experience of the expansive in the present.

Outer Spiral: Root your tailbone into right now.
Anchor your tailbone to anchor yourself in the gifts the universe is offering you in this pose.

Organic Energy: Celebrate the blessings of this moment.
Revel in the reward of creating the pose to the fullest of your capacity.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

On love and loving

This week is Valentine’s week and when I think about love (in yogic terms at least!) I think about Hanuman, the half-monkey-half-man-Demi-God from the epic Ramayana, who is the pure  embodiment of love and devotion.  I love this story because it is a story of the love of friendship, of he and his comrade Ram. I am particularly celebrating that aspect of love as a dear, beloved friend is coming in to visit for the weekend, helping remind me that there are so many aspects of love to be grateful for.   I think it’s important to note that in the story of the Ramayana, Ram is an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu.  Vishnu is known as the Sustainer in the mythological Hindu trinity (along with Brahma, the Creator, and Shiva, the Destroyer) and he comes into human form when things are falling apart (as Rama in the Ramayana, and Krishna in the Mahabharata as we have spoken about recently as well).  So why is Vishnu the one who appears when chaos is reigning?   Because when things get crazy there is a lot of fear…and what is the antidote to fear? Love, of course.  And what is the force that sustains the universe?  Love, of course.  So Vishnu appears as Ram and….

As the story goes, one day as Hanuman was walking through the forest, he meets Ram and there is an instant connection. Think of someone in your life whom you have that connection with.  Who, from the first moment you saw them, it was like the whole of your life was leading up to that moment.  My friend Michelle wrote this last week about her son who was turning 17: “(giving birth to my son) ignited inside of me a strength and a primitiveness that I’ve embraced in this journey with him. If we are lucky, at some point in our lives, that fire, what makes you a fighter, a force, that something inside of you that everyone knows better than to mess with, that warrior becomes as much a part of you as your teeth or your hands. It keeps you fighting and swinging and spitting and it keeps you so strong and your heart so full that it aches inside of your chest for no reason. It makes you laugh so hard that you surprise yourself. It’s the first time you really love something more than you love yourself.” That was the connection between Ram and Hanuman, and that is the connection I want us to draw on in our practice this week. 

I feel so grateful to be so surrounded by love in all aspects of my life. I am the oldest of four children and I remember feeling that kind of love for each and every one of my siblings as they came into my life. The first time I saw my husband I felt it, and I am lucky enough to feel it every day, every time I look at him or even think of him.  The unmistakable knowing that our two souls were already joined, and we just had to embrace it.  I felt it the first time I saw each of my children, a recognition of part of my own soul and being reflected back to me.  Like a part of me that lives outside my body, but is so inextricably connected that each of them might just as well be an extra limb.

When I talk this way with people I often hear “You are so lucky”.  Folks, I don’t believe in luck.  Have I been born into privilege?  Sure, the fact that I was born free in the USA means that I have.  But I believe, with all my heart, that love is the essence of all things.   It surrounds all beings all the time.  We need only to open to it.  So I will venture to say that “luck” doesn’t have much to do with it.  Open yourself, seek it, expect it and I guarantee that love will come to you.  Who or what do you love like that?  Who or what loves you that way?  How can that inspire your yoga practice, both on and off the mat?  Like the image above, inscribe the picture of your love into your heart for all to see.

Love has the capacity to both break us open and to heal us.  To crush us and to lift us up.  It often happens simultaneously.  If I’m being honest, I will tell you that I can sometimes push people away from me, ironically usually those who are closest to me.  I think I do this because I am capable of feeling tremendous love, and it feels so big, so much bigger than me, that I almost feel like I can’t contain it.  That it will break me open.  But the times that it has, and believe me it has, have caused tremendous shifts in my life in the most amazing ways.  So I’m here to say, let love break you open this week.  Embrace it, invite it, receive it and along with it the blessings of loving and being loved.  Like the great Leonard Cohen says: “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything - that’s how the light gets in.”

Off the mat practice:
Eknath Easwaren says it like this “Love is a skill, a precious skill that can be learned. There are many other skills that are useful, even necessary, but in the end, nothing less than learning to love will satisfy us. The saints and mystics tell us that life has only one overriding purpose: to discover the source of infinite love and then to express this love in daily living. Without love, life is empty; without love, life is meaningless. The only purpose which can satisfy us completely, fulfill all our desires, and then make our life a gift to the whole world, is the gradual realization of the Self within, which throws open the gates of love. We cannot dream what depth and breadth of love we are capable of until we make the discovery that this divine spark lives in every creature.” 

So how do we do that?? This one is simple – make this your mantra this week:
“Let love win today”.  In whatever way it can.

On the mat practice:
This week on the mat we are practicing Hanuman’s pose. Those of you who practice yoga know that it is a challenging one (a full front split, with many variations).   Sometimes the reason poses get their names is obvious, but as I practiced it this week I realized at least one of the reasons this pose is named for Hanuman.  It is a pose that requires us to dig deep, to dedicate ourselves fully to our practice in order to practice it safely and exuberantly.  Just as love does in relationship – it’s not easy, but the rewards are many.  Here are some tips to make it easier:

Open to Grace: Feel the love that surrounds you in this room and in your life.
Open to the love that is offered to you willingly – where is love being offered that is hard for you to accept?

Muscular Energy: Draw in the devotion that others have for you.
(As you feel the love that surrounds you) open every pore of your skin to draw it in through the muscles to the bones, into the very marrow and cells that make up the bones, giving you a strength you didn’t even know you had.
Feel your muscles hug the bones like your beloved embraces you.

Inner Spiral: Widen your sit bones and widen your experience of love.
Broaden the base of the pelvis to make space for more love in your life.
(In split leg poses – like Hanumanasana) Expand and widen the inner back thigh to open and receive love from those who offer it to you.

Outer Spiral: Scoop your tailbone down and affirm your love for _____________ (whatever you love/dedicate your practice to).
(In split leg poses) Scoop the front leg sit bone under and offer your devotion through the whole leg back out to the world.

Organic Energy: Let your pose be your best expression of radical self-love.
Offer your love energetically out from every bone, through muscle and skin, radiating out to all those you love.
Make your pose an offering of devotion to _______________ (who or what you wish to devote it to).
Let love pulse outward with every beat of your heart to all those you love and beyond.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


In the Mahabharata, Yudhisthira has a dream…
He, his brothers and their wife Draupadi, and his faithful dog are walking through the north, over a “great desert of salt and white sand beyond the Himalaya, where the sun’s rays had sucked up every drop of water.”  One by one his brothers collapse and die, as does Draupadi.  Only Yudhisthira and his dog are left.  Indra (the Lord of Heaven) appears from above in his chariot and invites Yudhisthira aboard to ascend to heaven with him.  Yudhisthira refuses to go without his dog, who has been faithful and stayed with him through the arduous journey.  Indra tells him “there is no place for dogs in heaven. It cannot be.”  Yudhisthira replies “It cannot be otherwise”.  Indra is outraged – how can you give up heaven for a measly dog?  Immortality, prosperity, and happiness for a dirty animal?  Yudhisthira says “This dog has been companion, protector, friend. I will stay near him."  And he does.

The little dog in our story was the truest picture of loyalty – he stayed with Yudhisthira, supported him while all those around him fell, and was deserving of his devotion.  Dogs are almost without exception completely faithful to their owners, and so give us a beautiful model of devotion.  Really, I know a lot of people who would rank their dog a better friend than many of their human ones!

My son has a "fair-weather friend" and it is so painful to watch as a parent.  We have lots of conversations around our dinner table about loyalty as a result.  We talk about the need for loyalty from both sides in a friendship, which (in kid terms) means being the same friend even when someone or something “better” comes along. (Yudhisthira knew this innately – my son’s friend, not so much.)  The truest friends are the ones who, when faced with the promises of heaven, still choose to stay steady by our side regardless.  The ones who put their own comforts aside in service of friendship and goodwill.  The ones who do that not to win our favor, but because it is in their heart to do so.

The word yoga itself means “yoke”.  So really, yoga practice itself is a practice of loyalty.  When we cultivate loyalty we become reliable, dependable, and steady, so we can more easily recognize our dharma or path.  When we know our path we have an avenue for expansion and growth and we contribute more meaningfully to our world and the world around us.  When we are loyal to our hearts we affirm our innate value and holiness. It is an act of deep honoring of who we are at our very essence.

The way this plays out on our mats is of course through our poses.  We can always choose an easier variation, the one we can “perform” more beautifully - but does that move us forward?  If we can stay committed, loyal to the pose we are working on even when we can’t quite do it yet, or when it is really challenging, that’s when we grow. When we are loyal to our bodies, there is a greater capacity for expansion because there is an innate faith that we will stay within the safe parameters for growth.  Even on a subconscious & energetic level loyalty affirms faith.

In the end of the dream, Yudhisthira resists every temptation to leave the little dog and look out for himself – he refuses Indra and chooses to stay in the Earthly realm, choosing loyalty over the gifts of heaven.  Just as he affirms this decision, Indra, looking behind him, drops to one knee and bows. Yudhisthira turns around in surprise to see that the little dog has transformed into his father, the God Dharma.  Dharma says “Blessings to you, as a dog I followed you across this desert.   You have compassion for all creatures and that is not weak but strong, and what you believe in you have defended to heaven’s gate.” 

Sometimes the gifts of loyalty aren’t always clear.  Hopefully at some point we have that dog-becomes-God moment and it does, but that is not always the case (at least 10 times while I was typing this I mistyped the word dog as god...hmmm).  In the end it doesn’t matter if we are committed to a dog or (a) God, a person or an animal, a job or a hobby – the act of devotion in and of itself is holy and worthy of blessing.  

Off the mat:
What are you loyal to? What do you “yoga” with?  Is it/him/her deserving of your faith and commitment?  
Are there aspects of your life that you could commit to more fully? What avenues do they provide for personal growth in spite of sacrifices it might also require?

On the mat:
Be loyal to the pose you are holding – don’t rush out of it because it’s not the prettiest one you can do.  Or if it is, explore how you can deepen it even further.  Be loyal to your body by honoring and respecting it’s boundaries and yet at the same time pushing those boundaries to expand with every breath.

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